We arrived in Kraków, Poland on May 22nd (after a brief stop in Brussels for Belgium chocolate). Kraków reminded me of Bayeux. The same older buildings and small streets, but there were tons of people. I would not say that it moved at the same pace as Paris or London, but it was not as slow as Bayeux. This was a city! A beautiful one, with history and a lot to see.
I visited the Jewish Quarter for food and the market, passed by the castle and walked through the town square. As a group, we went to the Schindler museum and on the last day we drove out to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have a lot to cover on that, but I’ll start with my initial thoughts on Kraków.
My first thought was how upbeat the city was. It was classic and clean. I liked that it was not super slow, but that I also did not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of the average Parisian.
Strolling through the markets and trying pierogis in restaurants made me forget that this country endured the German occupation. That was until we went to the Jewish Quarter. Vendors were selling Nazi and Soviet war memorabilia. Its authenticity was questionable, but I found it strange. Why would the Jewish area of Kraków be selling swastika pins? And in the Schindler museum, we saw how Kraków changed dramatically when Germany took over. The country had its culture taken from it and for the past few decades it has been trying to rediscover itself. I did not realize the damage that Poland suffered until looking at Poland from the start of the German occupation.
On the last day, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was terribly depressing, but I wanted to experience it. It is part of the reason I decided to apply for this program. Still, I struggle to explain why I wanted to go to Auschwitz. Approximately, 1.1 million people were murdered here. They were starved and enslaved. Some were beaten and shot. Most were gassed as part of the “Final Solution” to annihilate all Jewish people using a chemical called Zyklon B.
The people in the camps were brought into gas chambers after being told that they were about to take a shower, then stripped and locked in the room. The gas was released and within fifteen to twenty minutes, every victim would be dead.
Their bodies were cremated and their ashes were used as fertilizer. Nothing was wasted. When John gave his report here, he said that while some of the people physically survived the camp, they died inside before they were liberated. Why would I want to see the site of all this tragedy? I still do not really know the answer. I believe that preserving Auschwitz is important so that people are reminded of the atrocities that occurred there and know to never repeat them. Studying this camp is nothing like going to the actual place. I walked on the same platform where families were separated and it was determined if a prisoner would live or die.
It was a somber day and a powerful experience. There was a room filled with the shoes that were taken from the prisoners. Tiny shoes that belonged to children were in those cases. I think that affected me the most. If not that, then it was the room full of human hair that was the most painful. It was taken from the prisoners upon entering the camp and it made me sick to my stomach. The overt cruelty in the camp is unbelievable. Yet, it happened. There is no positive spin on the Holocaust. Americans love a happy ending. It is a cliché in most popular WWII films, especially since we won the war. Poland did not come out on top. It is impossible to find a bright side here. Nearly 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Families were broken and displaced from their homes. Poland lost its culture and the number of Jews living in Kraków went from 60,000 pre-war to under 200 identified Jews today. My initial thought about Poland was how beautiful it was and how lively the town square in Kraków felt. Unfortunately, the country has deep scars which were very visible on my tour through Auschwitz-Birkenau.